Religious Leaders Offer Moral Responses To Comey Firing
By Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush
President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey — in the middle of the inquiry into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia — took most everyone by surprise. Politicians and journalists are scrambling to process how it happened and what it means for the future of the rule of law and free pursuit of truth and justice in America.
Religious leaders have, thus far, been somewhat muted in their response. Yet the centrality of justice and freedom, as well as scriptural warnings against the excesses of authority, offer ample opportunity for religious and spiritual commentary.
Taking advantage of the Executive Order signed by President Trump a few days ago that encourages religious leaders to be more forthcoming in the public square, I asked a number of faith leaders to speak about the current crisis in our national government and what they might preach or teach this week in their communities.
Most of the responders were less interested in the legal intricacies than the deeper moral questions as Jesuit priest and best-selling author, the Rev. James A. Martin, suggests:
“While the firing may have been legal, there is a question of whether it was moral. There is, I would suggest, a moral duty to allow the free and fair investigation of a president’s activities, in order to determine whether there were anything illegal or unethical was done. That goes for both Republican and Democrat presidents. I’m no politician, but the doctrine that no one is above the law makes sense — not only constitutionally, but also morally.”
Omid Safi, the director of the Islamic Studies Center at Duke University brought in some key wisdom – and a warning – from the Muslim faith:
“There is a tradition from the Prophet that says: ‘A country can survive lack of faith, but it cannot survive tyranny and injustice.’ What we are seeing with the firing of Comey, coming in the aftermath of Trump’s dismissal of the judiciary (‘so-called judges’), firing of Sally Yates, repeated unconstitutional and illegal Muslim bans, and so, so much more, is a very direct assault on the due process of law and a system built on transparency. What is at stake here is not about one candidate or one party. It is an existential and constitutional crisis threatening the very heart of the American democratic experiment.”
Rabbi Justus Baird, dean at Auburn Seminary, warned against abuse of power — even that of the President:
“The book of Deuteronomy offers a simple instruction to kings: never act like you are better than your fellows (17:20). It seems to this rabbi that it would have been much wiser for President Trump to let the current investigations play out, to show the American people that he plays by some of the rules. Thinking that one is above the law is a major step toward loss of power.”
Joshua DuBois was head of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under President Obama. He began wondering how the current crisis impacted the faith community closest to President Trump, namely White Evangelical Christians:
“I believe the firing of Director Comey poses particularly acute questions for believers who supported President Trump. With our democracy now threatened in such a specific way, will these religious leaders stand up for the rule of law, even if it means opposing the man they once supported? Or will they put allegiance to a man above principles of fairness and good governance for all? Many believers – particularly some of my conservative Evangelical friends – will have to confront that question in the coming days, and I hope they will use wisdom and discernment when they do.”
Author and activist Brian McLaren also finds himself wondering about Evangelical supporters of Donald Trump as he himself once strongly identified with that community:
“Growing up Evangelical, I was taught that character matters. Eighty-one percent of Evangelicals no longer vote on that belief. We are seeing the moral deterioration settle in like a bad infection, as Trump’s Evangelical supporters remain hauntingly silent on the White House’s firing of Comey, followed by a deluge of lies about its genesis. The corruption of a religious community, like the corruption of democracy itself, proceeds by thousands of personal corruptions.”
Pastor of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, the Rev. Dr. Jamal Bryant, also saw this as a crisis moment for Evangelical supporters of Donald Trump:
“The current events brings the White Evangelicals to trial. They are the ones who, wholesale, endorsed Donald Trump and stood by during the assassination attempts on health care, as well as the defunding historical Black colleges. Will they stand by again or will they now stand in the footprints of the Prophet Nathan who stood up to King David. These Evangelicals have access to the ear of the president, and I would say to them in this moment: You have to hold him accountable.
There is a related event that happened today involving the students of Bethune-Cookman University who protested the commencement address of Education Secretary Betsy DeVoss by turning their backs. The administration said to the students that, if they continued to protest, they would get their degree mailed to them. Now many of these students are first generation and they have gone into debt to get their degree, but they chanted back ‘mail them.’ These students are acting with more moral authority than many of those who are ordained. No wonder so many of them are not going to church, because they are not finding the moral conviction there anymore. That is what we need right now.”
Bryant’s call for moral leadership was echoed by theologian and pastor, Rev. Dr. Peter Heltzel, who indicts the President and his senior leadership:
“Trump and Sessions have forgotten what the ‘J’ in Department of Justice stands for. In the Hebrew Bible, the couplet of Justice and Righteousness is the most frequently used and they are the two pillars of ethics. What’s happened is that our leaders are no longer concerned about truth and what is just for the people, they are just concerned about their own power and profit. If the judges and heads of government are no longer to allowed to speak truth and push for justice, then I call upon the religious community to do it with the courage and conviction.”
The Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Lewis, senior minister of Middle Collegiate Church and executive director of The Middle Project is simply done with the lies.
“The timing is suspicious. Trump praised Comey for doing the right thing with Clinton’s emails and now terminates him, allegedly, for the same thing. ‘We shall know the truth and the truth will set us free.’ It is hard to find truth in this administration. We have a confirmed Liar-in-Chief and he runs the country like he ran his businesses – with no integrity. We can only trust that he will be untrustworthy.”
Wajahat Ali, muslim comedian, activist and creative director of Affinas Labs invoked Jesus in a note personally addressed to President Trump:
“President Trump, like you, I am a person of faith and a lover of Jesus. Shocking, I know. I’m an American Muslim who read the Bible at an all-boys Jesuit high school, I would like to reach your heart by speaking your language. As a lover of Jesus, you will appreciate this piece of advice from Matthew, 23-12: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”Good luck with the Trump-Russia investigations, and look up at all the nasty women, bad hombres, Mexican rapists, and radical Muslims who will keep rising.”
Sunita Viswanath, co-director of Sadhana, a progressive Hindu organization, takes the long view of this moment and pulls back the lens as she feels called to do the work of justice in all areas of society:
“The Bhagavad Gita begins with the words ‘Dharmakshetra Kurukshetra.’ This statement equates the actual battle taking place on a physical field called Kuru with a metaphysical war of dharma, or justice, or what is right and true. When I think of all the complex issues behind President Trump’s firing of James Comey — the alarming growing authoritarianism, his true reasons for this move, which we are all speculating about, and the bold and disingenuous explanations being given by the Trump administration — I am appalled, but am also reminded that the real issue I need to focus on is truth, justice, dharma.
This bizarre moment will come and go, in time we may make more sense of it. We may know who lied and who broke the law and why. But my dharma is to lift up the voices of the unheard, bring visibility to those who are denied their basic rights: Muslims, immigrants, people of color, women, and the LGBTQIA community, people who are poor and struggling, people who are in crisis because they need healthcare, and of course our planet herself.”
Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg offers a spiritual lesson to breath in moments like this one:
“Buddhist teaching continually urges us to look as deeply as we can into a situation, to see a more thorough display of causes and conditions. I try not to be swayed by ready assumptions and reactiveness, and instead try to discern as best I can what tangle of causes and conditions might be underneath what’s happening on the surface. And I try to remember to breathe.On a simply human level I feel pain for someone getting fired..I don’t at all enjoy it. And I feel my concern for all of us as our lives are so fragile, so vulnerable to change. My wish for all of us us that we be free from suffering and the causes of suffering, and reunited with happiness and its causes.”
In a similar way, sensei Gina Sharpe, the guiding teacher and co-founder of the New York Insight Meditation Center, looks for internal peace and balance to approach that which feels out of balance in our government right now.
“My initial response is ‘this too,’ then feeling the heat in body and mind as yet another instance of being thrown off balance, a kind of low grade anxiety between the apparently distant events and their symbolic significance that there is a threat to what we thought we understood, knew, and agreed collectively as our fundamental societal underpinnings and assumptions. This creates an amorphous collective anxiety that leaves me and us feeling the powerlessness and frustration of being thrown off balance repeatedly.
Speaking to colleagues, friends, and students, we are all noticing that this affects not only our civic collective life, but seems reflected in our personal lives. Everyone I speak to seems to be feeling more than usual the vicissitudes of being human. We are being taught, again and again, how it is not just our narrow personal egoic lives that matter, but our communal, collective whole being. The challenge is to operate in a balanced, equanimous way on both levels. We can heal through coming together to meet the feelings of powerlessness as an understanding of the nature of self as in process, inexorably connected with all other beings – our well being together greatly influencing and supporting individual wellbeing.
That is the background from which we can receive the news of Comey’s firing as ‘this, too’ and maintain balance so that we are able to engage fully as much as we can, and of course rest in recognition of the universe unfolding as it should, which includes how we can resist with love and lend our individual strength to shore up and support the power of the collective. From there, we can act.”
Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is Senior Vice President at Auburn and Editor of Voices.